Are team building exercises a waste?

Carlos Valdes-Dapena thinks so. In an article for Harvard Business Review, he argues that most team building events are a waste of time and money. He has research to back it up, but I think most people who have participated in hokey corporate team building events would say “duh”. But there’s a difference between Team Building™ and team building.

Team Building™ often consists of contrived situations that seek to forge bonds within a few hours. They’re expensive and elaborate. They may involve cheesy, forced metaphors. Participants feel uncomfortable and coerced.

Team building is not something that can be forced. It can be encouraged, given conditions to thrive. Ultimately, though, it must happen organically. So any team building exercise that’s worthwhile has to be a slow burn. Relaxed, informal lunches can do a lot for helping people work together. I’ve enjoyed trips to a bowling alley and to a cave system.

The key part is “we’re going to spend some time together away from work”, not “we’re going to lock you away so that you become a team”. Even though the goal is to improve team cohesion, you can’t just sit there and expect it. Give people space to socialize and interact on their own terms so that they can form bonds on their own.

This is particularly important for distributed teams. In my experience, even brief face-to-face meetings dramatically improve how I work with others. When I visit offices or run into colleagues at conferences, I try to spend as much time as I can being social. I ended up skipping several sessions at DevConf because I figured the opportunity to have a cup of coffee with a project contributor was more valuable than attending a talk that I could watch on YouTube later.

Good team building exercises are cheap and easy. They aren’t a burden on your team. But they take time.

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